Unused Audio Commentary By Howard Zinn And Noam Chomsky, Recorded For The Return Of the King (Platinum Series Extended Edition) DVD
(With special thanks to Dan Josefson, Rachel Meresman, and Alex Carp.)
BY JEFF ALEXANDER and TOM BISSELL
ZINN: Here we see all the beacons of Gondor being lit until Strider, sitting in Rohan, goes running off to Theoden to set Gandalf’s coup in motion. He certainly does look excited. And, soon enough, Merry is being made an esquire of Rohan.
CHOMSKY: Hobbits angle for any court position they can get.
ZINN: At least Dwarves maintain their self-respect. Back to Osgiliath.
CHOMSKY: Men and Orcs slaughtering one another—needlessly. But how I enjoy the majestic sight of flying Nazgul. Explain to me how it is morally wrong that the Orcs have achieved this edge in battle? Notice war is never a matter of light shows and magic with the Orcs. Rather, it’s taming and harnessing an incredibly dangerous beast and training it to fight for you in battle.
ZINN: Whereas Gandalf’s use of this highly unnatural white light to scare off the Nazgul is somehow virtuous?
CHOMSKY: The Orcs, as a whole, do not strike me as a warlike race.
ZINN: No more so than Men, at least.
CHOMSKY: What they strike me as is an adaptable and efficient race unfortunately made to fight.
ZINN: Denethor is now learning that the ring was nearly in his son Boromir’s hands, and he reassures Faramir that if he had the ring he would use it only in the utmost need.
CHOMSKY: Denethor wants to protect his people and make the world as safe a place as possible for Gondor. And if that means making peace with Orcs, so be it. Perhaps there is madness in Denethor. But it is Lear’s madness—a madness caused by grief and loss, a madness that finally recognizes the true responsibilities of a king.
ZINN: The proof is in his later preparation to burn his son alive. For Denethor, the same rules apply for his son as for anyone else. And if his son has collaborated with an alien alliance of Men, wizards, and Elves against the peaceful interests of a king and his people—
CHOMSKY: Which he certainly has.
ZINN: Which he certainly has! Well, then—it’s the pyre for him.
CHOMSKY: Why is this act of justice portrayed so pejoratively? Are we destined to see the history of this entire conflict through the lens of Gandalf’s corrupt, self-serving ideology?
ZINN: Back to Denethor. He really does behave with rational self-interest throughout this story. He’s a man who has lost his son. Yes, occasionally, that influences his behavior. However, I don’t think it affects the essential consistency of the positions he takes, right up to the point where he demands that he and his collaborationist son be immolated. Denethor isn’t a madman; he’s a sad man.
CHOMSKY: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum are still climbing here. Again we see Sam’s constant scheming against Gollum juxtaposed with Gollum’s painful internal struggle. He’s really a kind of Hamlet figure. Here, Gollum has the opportunity to take the ring from Frodo as he struggles up the mountainside, but he doesn’t. What does he extend? His hand. He extends his hand. And Sam, without bothering to learn how the situation will unfold, draws his sword like the blundering, homicidal wrecking ball he is.
ZINN: Now at Denethor’s court: “What service can a Hobbit offer such a great lord of Men?” Pippin asks himself in the halls of Minas Tirith. Keep dancing, Pippin, and I’m sure you’ll find out.
CHOMSKY: You’ve called Denethor a rational actor, but how do you explain his passivity when he’s standing here doing nothing while an Orcish horde has, by its own admission, come to slaughter him and his people?
ZINN: I think Denethor is convinced he can still work something out when the Orcs arrive. Again, the suggestion that all Orcs have the same motivation goes against what we have learned from all insurgencies throughout history. Yes, there are hard-line Orc factions, but there are more moderate Orc factions with no interest in needlessly prolonging the war. It’s in no culture’s interest to destroy itself, after all.
CHOMSKY: We return to the Endless Stair—and this is an illuminating scene. Here we have Gollum purposefully spilling bread over the edge of the cliff. I suspect that Gollum has seen enough of the Elves to know that it could very easily be poisoned Elf bread.
ZINN: Well, just look at what the bread’s done to him and Frodo already. Has anybody investigated the possibility that what has made Gollum look the way he does is Elvish dioxin?
CHOMSKY: Interesting. The farther Frodo goes and the more Elvish lembas bread he eats, the sicker and weaker he becomes. We know the magical qualities of his ring are ludicrous. So what is actually causing his weakness, his nausea? I think you’re on to something. We also might want to look into whether the pink Orc has been party to any similar Elvish dioxin poisoning.
ZINN: “Sméagol hates nasty Elf bread,” Gollum tells Sam. He might as well say, “Sméagol hates nasty Elf dioxins.”
CHOMSKY: Samwise is certainly involved in all this. He is, you will note, always insisting that Frodo eat the bread. And he’s furious when it is tossed over the ledge.
ZINN: You’re right. He’s rarely seen eating any of it—on one occasion he turns it away—yet of them he’s the healthiest.
CHOMSKY: The real question is whether Gandalf ever even wanted this mission to succeed. If so, why didn’t he entrust the ring to the Eagles? They saved him and Bilbo from peril at least twice in The Hobbit and helped him escape Saruman’s tower in The Fellowship of the Ring. Why not just have them fly over and drop the ring in the fires of Orodruin?
ZINN: Because Hobbits and Mannish collaborators can be convinced to act in accord to Gandalf’s whims, but I imagine that Gwayhir the Eagle Lord is not so willing a mark. What would be in it for him? What do giant eagles want?
CHOMSKY: It doesn’t matter what they want—they, and Gandalf, know that such a mission would be pointless. That’s why they didn’t use the Eagles, because destroying the ring will not fix Middle Earth’s problems.
ZINN: Giant fish. Yes. Giant fish—that’s what Gwayhir likes.
CHOMSKY: Gollum here finally succeeds in saving Frodo from Sam—without, note, doing any actual harm to Sam.
ZINN: Whereas Samwise surely would have strung Gollum’s toes into a necklace and worn them around his neck. Here we’re back in Minas Tirith, where Pippin performs for Denethor as Faramir leads a charge on the Orc army. Faramir’s men are clearly going into battle without the appropriate armor.
CHOMSKY: They haven’t armored the bottoms or fronts of their horses at all, and as we see these attractive metal breastplates can’t even stop a crudely made Orcish arrow. Meanwhile, Denethor enjoys his lunch. I sincerely hope he has a royal taster, given the way Gandalf works.
ZINN: Minis Tirith: a city literally hiding from Middle Earth behind large stone walls. Do you see farming in Minas Tirith? No. Crops are imported. Do you see manufacturing? Outsourced, I imagine, to Dwarves. Where do they get their horses? From Rohan. Armor? Most likely armor manufacture is outsourced to Haradrim children down south. No wonder it can’t stop an arrow!
CHOMSKY: I wonder if the reason the Haradrim have joined the Orcish insurgency is because their children are forced to manufacture Gondorian breastplates and Elvish invisibility cloaks? Imagine how difficult it would be to make such a garment.
ZINN: Or what a 12-hour day of invisibility-cloak weaving would do to young fingers.
CHOMSKY: The people of Gondor can’t even grow one tree in the main courtyard of their capital.
ZINN: Yet Orcs are somehow able to feed a whole army of Trolls.
CHOMSKY: Notice the Trolls pushing these landing devices that the Orcs have ingeniously constructed. These Trolls—another species native to Middle Earth—have been befriended, apparently saved from their established vulnerability to sunlight, and given a useful duty.
ZINN: Self-hating, Elf-emulating Men invest so much in symbolic one-upmanship characteristic of capitalistic societies: Who has the nicer tunic? Whose dagger has more shiny gems on it? Who has the strongest pipe-weed? But the Orcish alliance seems to be a truly mutual, multicultural cooperative enterprise. Which leads to one question: Who, exactly, is Sauron? Why is he such a seductive leader?
ZINN: Many who see this film fail to note the diversity of the coalition represented by Sauron: Trolls, Orcs, Men from the South and East.
ZINN: Triceratopses. Oliphants. Wargs.
CHOMSKY: While the conspiracy initiated by Gandalf and the Elves relies exclusively on fear and manipulation. The Hobbits are hooked on pipe-weed—
ZINN: Gondor’s throne is usurped.
CHOMSKY: Rohan’s arm is twisted. The dead are blackmailed. And look at this. We’ve seen so many examples of Elvish corruption that it’s impossible to decide which best captures it. But this gets my vote. Here Elrond arrives in Rohan to talk to Aragorn—
CHOMSKY: Excuse me, yes. Strider. Elrond shows up on the eve of the battle that will decide the fate of Middle Earth. But what is he worried about? That his precious daughter might die.
ZINN: The Elves will not sacrifice anything in this struggle. But we’ve seen that Denethor is more than willing to sacrifice his own son.
CHOMSKY: Finally, Elrond suggests that Aragorn recruit skeletons to come to the Elf-Istari coalition’s aid.
ZINN: It shows where the values of these people really lie. In this army, apparently, there’s no need to be a citizen, there’s no need to be a member, there’s not even any pretension that people are fighting for their own interest. Strider’s victory relies on the martial prowess of a disreputable group of deceased mercenaries.
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